How To Look At A House
McGarry and Madsen's home inspection blog for buyers of
site-built, mobile/manfuactured and modular homes
What are those strange looking wall switches in houses from the 1950s and 1960s?
Monday, August 6, 2018
Low Voltage Switches
They are low voltage switches. The ones in the photo above were made by Remcon and have a retro-futuristic look reminiscent of the Jetsons TV cartoon show of the same era. Similar low voltage switches were also made by GE, Bryant, Sierra, and Touch Plate.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Although the wiring at the switches is low voltage, they control regular 120-volt lighting, receptacles and appliances via electronic relays at another location. A central transformer steps the 120-volt alternating current (AC) down to 28-volts direct current (DC), which enables the use of three very thin #22 wires—shown in the photo below in an the attic—which are easier to run than standard NM-cables.
That’s the advantage of this system, but the disadvantages are that relays and transformers have a much shorter lifespan than regular wall switches, are significantly more expensive to troubleshoot and replace when they fail, and the original equipment is no longer manufactured.
Replacement low voltage switches are still made and you can visit the Kyle Switch Plates website at www.kyleswitchplates.com for more information. We recently saw replacement switches in a 1950s house that resemble a regular toggle wall switch, but are recognizable as low-voltage because the toggle lever sits in a horizontal position, like in the photo below.
Kyle will also help you identify which manufacturer’s product you have. At some point, as components of a 50+ year-old low voltage switch system begin failing more often, a homeowner has to decide whether to keep buying pricey replacement parts or write a one-time much bigger check to rewire with standard modern switches. You cannot simply change out the switches and run 120-volts through the old #22 wires.
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